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How Far to Nudge?

Assessing Behavioural Public Policy

Peter John

This book addresses the wave of innovation and reforms that has been called the nudge or behavioural public policy agenda, which has emerged in many countries since the mid-2000s. Nudge involves developing behavioural insights to solve complex policy problems, such as unemployment, obesity and the environment, as well as improving the delivery of policies by reforming standard operating procedures. It reviews the changes that have taken place, in particular the greater use of randomised evaluations, and discusses how far nudge can be used more generally in the policy process. The book argues that nudge has a radical future if it develops a more bottom up approach involving greater feedback and more engagement with citizens.
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Chapter 3: The behavioural revolution in the social sciences

Assessing Behavioural Public Policy

Peter John


It is important to start this chapter with the acknowledgement that the study of human behaviour is at the heart of social enquiry, a topic that appears in the first published thoughts about society, politics and the economy. As soon as intellectuals started thinking about society, they considered human behaviour as an important object of study. Social scientists in particular have sought to understand what drives human behaviour, right from the founders of sociology and economics, such as Emile Durkheim, who wanted to explain the prevalence of suicide in modern societies. Almost all forms of social inquiry involve a consideration of behaviour in some form, and even studies on what causes social and political attitudes entail a consideration of how those attitudes are affected by behaviour, which in turn affects attitudes. Yet there is something about the contemporary period that has heightened the academic interest; perhaps the prominence of the behavioural public problems highlighted in the last chapter has stimulated academics. Most importantly, researchers in the social sciences have managed to produce a more tractable set of theories and models that are of direct use outside the academy, which started from some esoteric research questions and models, of interest only to a handful of intellectuals, but which over time gradually developed into a larger body of knowledge.

This academic agenda is the field of behavioural economics. Over a short period of time, its ideas became influential and entered the mainstream of academic thinking, so...

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